Saturday, January 20, 2018
Tampa Bay Buccaneers

First rule of Bucs preseason: Don't risk injury

TAMPA — The biggest complaint about the NFL preseason is we never get to see enough of the stars.

Even die-hard fans hate the preseason, and here's why: The starters play a little in the first game, a little in the second game, about a half of the third game then not at all in the last game.

The rest of the time, we're seeing guys who will be tending bar, building a bar or studying for the bar come fall.

For those out there who pay regular-season money or have been waiting seven months to watch football, does this stink? Sure, it does.

But tell you what: If I was in charge of the Bucs, you would barely see the stars at all in the preseason, which starts tonight at Raymond James Stadium.

The risk of injury to key players in a bunch of games that don't mean a thing is just too great for my taste.

If I was running the show, running back Doug Martin would get a handful of carries — and no more — all preseason. Wide receivers Vincent Jackson and Mike Williams might have a ball or two — and that's it — thrown in their direction.

Linebacker Lavonte David, defensive linemen Gerald McCoy and Da'Quan Bowers and safety Mark Barron would line up for a series — maybe two total — in the next four games. I might let offensive linemen Carl Nicks, Davin Joseph and Donald Penn play one series.

And I'm not sure I'd even let cornerback Darrelle Revis, coming off a major knee injury, stand on the sideline for the preseason for fear of someone rolling up on his bad knee. Or his good one, for that matter.

All of these players are just too important, and I wouldn't want their seasons ended before the real season begins.

Okay, look, I know how silly this all sounds. It's football. Players get hurt playing football. Teams can't go through life worrying about a player getting hurt.

Or can they?

Watch what happens when a Bucs player goes to the ground during a practice drill.

"That's when you see me get the most angry," Bucs coach Greg Schiano said. "What we try to do is stay up. If you can make the play on your feet, you make it. If you can't? Then you can't make the play. That's what we call thud.''

A thud?

"When guys go to the ground,'' Schiano said; "when everyone else is trying to stay up and one guy goes to the ground. It's kind of like a bowling ball with bowling pins. It's not you that gets hurt. It's the guy that you roll into, and that's what we have to avoid at all cost. You'll hear me get a little nutty when guys go to the ground, and that's the reason. It's more about keeping everybody healthy.''

Folks say training camp and the preseason don't count, but ask the Eagles about that. They've lost wide receivers Jeremy Maclin and Arrelious Benn for the season with knee injuries. Ask the Packers. They've lost left tackle Bryan Bulaga with a season-ending knee injury. Ask the Broncos. They'll be without center Dan Koppen all season because of a knee injury.

Add these to the wounded list: Ravens tight end Dennis Pitta, Saints receiver Joe Morgan and Falcons guard Mike Johnson.

Every day, it seems, another key player goes down with a devastating injury, and we haven't even had the first full week of exhibition games yet.

The Bucs know this story. Joseph missed all of last season after tearing up his knee in a preseason game.

So how do you balance getting a team ready for a season while keeping everyone healthy through the preseason?

"You have to have contact,'' Schiano said. "It's a contact game. And if you don't do it now, when are you going to do it?"

How about the regular season?

Seriously.

Does Martin really need a bunch of carries to get ready for the season? Does David really need to be reminded how to tackle? Does McCoy really need to learn how to fight off double-teams? I know you can't put football players in a bubble, but these players I've mentioned — Martin, Jackson, Williams, Nicks, Joseph, Penn, McCoy, Bowers, David, Barron, Revis — are simply too critical to this team's success to play unnecessarily in the preseason.

As far as quarterback Josh Freeman, yes, he needs repetitions. But hopefully, he would be aware enough to keep himself out of harm's way.

"You have to let them play some. It's just a matter of how much, right?'' Schiano said. "We have everything mapped out, so we have a plan.''

The preseason is partly to get everyone's timing down.

But much of training camp is about finding your backups. Let's face it: When you really get down to it, there are few open roster spots.

"I want to see some of the second- and third- and fourth-team guys compete,'' Schiano said. "How do they compete when the lights come on? Can they do it in the stadium against another team? Those are things that are important.''

But what's more important? Keeping your best players healthy. After all, there's no ability like availability.

Hold your breath as the Bucs begin their practice season tonight.

And be thankful, not disappointed, when the stars are standing on the sideline instead of risking injury in a game that doesn't mean anything.

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